Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

SAP and Autism at Work

Autism has been very much in the news recently, especially since the report indicating that the level of autism has now been estimated at one in sixty-eight children. And Laura Princiotta, who serves as the CEO of SpArc Philadelphia, a family of organizations which deal with intellectual and physical disabilities in adults, took particular note. The Arc of Philadelphia, under her direction and that of Tanya Regli, executive director of The Arc of Philadelphia, was selected by The Arc of US for a pilot program with SAP Americas, the giant international technology corporation, with headquarters in Newton Square, Pennsylvania, to put forward candidates on the autism spectrum who have technology skills.

Using their network of contacts in the community, the SpArc and Arc officials put out the word and attracted more than a dozen adults on the autism spectrum with technology skills. After an innovative interview process where candidates were able to demonstrate their abilities in non-traditional ways, five candidates were selected to work with a staff member who had been trained by Specialisterne, an organization led by Thorkil Sonne, a Danish man (now re-located to the state of Delaware), who is also the parent of a child with autism.

Sonne devised a four-week training program for SAP candidates using Legos, to work as a team and create a robot. Laura can tell you all about how exciting it was to see the five candidates who usually have difficulty with eye contact and with inter-personal relationships, working together as a team.

The assignment was for the team of five candidates to come up with a theme for their robot and then build it. The team decided to focus on senior citizens, learning that the average intake of pills each day for a senior is seven. And they were able to design a robot which dispensed the pills on a signal. So the team passed with flying colors.

On May 1, there was a huge launch of the Autism at Work initiative by SAP, working with their partner, Specialist People and Specialisterne, outlining the corporation’s commitment to hire people on the autism spectrum and try to guarantee that they would succeed at their jobs.

The SAP national vice president, Jose Velasco, in charge of the Autism at Work initiative, flew in from Texas for the day-long symposium. Jose himself has two young adult children, both on the autism spectrum, although technology is not their major interest. The Special People concept builds on people with autism who have demonstrated skills which can be used in a whole range of ways by a technology company such as SAP. What may be viewed as a weakness by others is viewed as a strength here – like focusing intently on something and doing repetitive work. Several of the five candidates recently hired have earned college degrees.

One of the speakers on May 1 at SAP, Stephen Shore, Ed.D., who is a professor at Adelphi University, had been diagnosed with autism at a young age. Fortunately, his parents had refused to accept the medical professionals’ recommendation that he be institutionalized. The parents found a way to communicate with him, and ultimately discovered how bright and talented he was. Dr. Shore shared his growing up, the way he “focused” on taking things apart and putting them back together again, like watches and bicycles – which led him to a satisfactory job while in high school working at a bicycle repair shop.

SAP and Thorkil Sonne know there is a huge untapped pool of talent around the world – people with autism. Tens of thousands of jobs are not filled for lack of qualified candidates, but SAP, Sonne and The Arc believe that people with autism could fill those jobs, fulfilling their potential and becoming taxpayers.

Anka Wittenberg, SAP Chief Diversity Officer, based in international headquarters in Germany, spoke about the need to devise a new system for hiring perfectly competent employees but whose autism prevents them from going the usual route of interviews and the usual team-work requirement. She explaind that the program has been successful for the past two years in India, Ireland, Canada, and in the U.S. SAP in Palo Alto, California, recently “onboarded” their first hires with autism. Now Newtown Square has joined those ranks.

SAP has committed to hiring people on the autism spectrum as 1% of their workforce around the world by the year 2020. How exciting! And SAP has also trained mentors and buddies on the teams which will support the new hires – such a large number of SAP employees volunteered to participate that the executives were overwhelmed.

“Jobs” is the magic word these days, and The Arc of Philadelphia is working with the right companies and programs to make sure this happens. Government agencies and officials are also very excited about the program and participated in the May 1 event at SAP. You knew how important this initiative must be when you saw the list of representatives of elected officials who attended – from Senators Casey and Toomey’s offices, to state senators and state representatives.

Governor Jack Markell of Delaware, where Specialisterne is now based, gave an inspiring speech at the opening of the day-long launch. Perhaps most important was the fact that Governor Markell called the Autism at Work initiative at SAP an “employee-powered movement” – not just from the top down. He also talked regarding the best thing about having served as chair of the Council of Governors, when he was able to set his goal for his year-long term as promoting the hiring of people with disabilities.

And Governor Markell, as well as most of the other speakers, insisted that the hiring of people on the autism spectrum is good business sense and not “charity.” He urged that hiring people with nontraditional skills be part of the overall workforce development initiative. Bravo to him and to SAP!


Bonnie Squires is a communications and government relations consultant for SpArc Philadelphia, The Arc of Philadelphia and SpArc Services, the family of organizations which offers programs and services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Philadelphia region. She hosts a weekly radio show, “The Marketing of Business,” as well as a weekly local cable access television interview show, “Bonnie’s Beat” at Radnor Studio 21. She can be reached at her website, The Arc of Philadelphia can be reached at 215-229-4550 and the website

Have a Comment?